Oftel critical of numbers 'barrier'

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OFTEL, the telecoms regulator, says an inability to keep the same telephone number when changing suppliers is a significant barrier to competition.

Businesses feel strongly about having to change numbers should they choose a telephone company other than BT.

In addition, a significant proportion of households that switched to cable companies complained of trouble in obtaining a telephone directory and in being listed themselves. The finding emerged in a study by Oftel of anti-competitive practices.

Oftel said price was the key issue when customers were considering whether to change, although many find difficulty in comparing tariffs from network operators.

Don Cruickshank, director-general of Oftel, also warned of widespread ignorance among telephone company staff of their employers' fair-trading rules. More than half appeared not to know the rules existed. 'This is very worrying and I will be pressing all the companies to review and strengthen their compliance programmes.'

The survey showed there is no systematic denigration of one company by another, although there is some 'unfairness'.

There is no evidence of companies using predatory pricing, or of bundling services and equipment in ways that exclude other operators. Mr Cruickshank warned, however, that as competition increases, staff must be given proper guidance on what they can and cannot do and say about competitors.

Separately, BT said it would invest millions in smartcard technology for future generations of payphones. The cards will be prepaid and the value of the call will be debited from the integral chip in them.